Georgia employers cheer from sidelines as workers hunt for vaccine

Fulton County school employees sit in the holding area after receiving their vaccination shot at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Fulton County school employees sit in the holding area after receiving their vaccination shot at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Many, however, are not offering extra pay or time off

Metro Atlanta employers are doing a lot of cheering from the sidelines as their workers seek COVID-19 vaccinations, a step some companies view as essential to reopening offices.

So far, most are relying on their employees to voluntarily sign up for shots on their own, rather than mandating them to do so. And, while a string of prominent U.S. companies from Amazon to Publix to McDonald’s are providing incentives. such as extra paid time off or even money bonuses, many major Georgia-based businesses have yet to do so.

Far more workers are becoming eligible for vaccines. Gov. Brian Kemp announced on Tuesday that all Georgians over the age of 16 will qualify for access starting Thursday.

An array of Georgia-based companies contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in recent weeks said they are strongly encouraging employees to get shots that could curb the pandemic, protect the public and help open workplaces more quickly.

Senior corporate executives have been enlisted to make personal appeals. Companies have set up online sites offering information about vaccines and how to set up appointments. Some have launched podcasts, made videos and convened panels of public health experts to get the point across.

But most aren’t offering financial incentives in an attempt to boost vaccine acceptance. Among those who say they are not: Home Depot, Coca-Cola and Southern Company. Neither are some big medical systems such as WellStar Health System, Emory Healthcare, Piedmont Healthcare and Northside Hospital System. Northside said it conducts prize drawings each day for employees who get their first shot and prizes for all staffers in departments where at least 75% of workers get the vaccine.

There are exceptions, though.

Delta Air Lines gives workers who get vaccinated extra paid time off equivalent to one work day plus a $50 incentive through health benefits. Fleetcor, a business payments company, offers a paid day off for each dose received. Cox Enterprises, the parent of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, grants four hours of paid time to employees who get the vaccine during work hours. The City of Acworth decided to give $200 Walmart gift certificates to vaccinated employees.

While few are offering carrots, sticks appear to be even more unusual. No employers contacted by the AJC said they are mandating that employees get vaccinated.

A few, though, offered wording that doesn’t necessarily foreclose the idea.

Coca-Cola said in an email that, “We are continuing to monitor the process and explore ways we can facilitate vaccinations when front-line employees are eligible. Our expectation is that people around the world will receive the vaccine through their current medical routines and, at this time, we have no current plans to make it a requirement.”

Emory University said in an emailed statement that it “will continue to review all policies through a formal review process, including any decision related to mandatory vaccinations.”

Emory Healthcare said its facilities offer convenient vaccine access for its workers. “Because the COVID-19 vaccine remains under an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), Emory Healthcare is not mandating the vaccination for its employees at this time. We will continue to review ongoing safety and effectiveness data and reassess our decision upon full FDA approval.”

Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Katie Kirkpatrick said many companies are supplying employees with answers “to make their own decisions” on the vaccines.

But more companies may offer stipends or extra paid time off as more in their workforce becomes eligible for the vaccines, she said. Many are taking the measure of what others are doing in their industry, the pace of COVID-19 infections and employee feedback.

In surveys conducted in January, local employers found that 55% to 65% of their workers firmly expected to get vaccinated, Kirkpatrick said. Those numbers have slowly trended up as more people hear from others who got shots and didn’t have significant adverse reactions.

Bob Ditty, an Atlanta-based partner for the human resources consulting firm Mercer, said some are concerned that even incentives won’t be enough motivation for resistant employees.

Georgia employers have explored offering on-site vaccinations, much as they do for flu shots, but have run into challenges. There weren’t plentiful supplies of doses early on. And there have been problems working out logistics.

Tom Fanning, the CEO of Georgia Power parent Southern, told analysts in February that there had been many discussions about how to make shots available to workers on the nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle, where waves of COVID-19 cases have added to the multi-billion-dollar project’s challenges.

At Fleetcor, past efforts to return more employees to corporate offices repeatedly stalled after workers tested positive for COVID-19, said Crystal Williams, the chief human resources officer. Now, the company plans to tie broader returns to more workers receiving vaccines.

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